Prague, 28 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Prosecutor Gregory Kehoe told the Hague-based war crimes tribunal earlier this week (July 26) that Croatian General Tihomir Blaskic, now on trial for war crimes, was only an instrument of the anti-Muslim policies of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Kehoe's statement raises the possibility that the tribunal may be preparing to indict the Croatian leader.
Blaskic's 1993 Lasva valley campaign was a classic example of "ethnic cleansing," in which at least dozens of Muslims lost their lives before their villages were torched. In his remarks, Kehoe argued that the plan that Blaskic carried out was developed by Tudjman and his associates, then deployed in Bosnia by the political structure there and the military machine" of the Herzegovinian Croats.
Kehoe said that Blaskic worked closely with Tudjman and key Herzegovinian leaders to achieve their goals--the removal of Muslims and ultimate annexation of the Lasva valley to the Republic of Croatia.
Kehoe's remarks come at a time when Zagreb's relations with the court are particularly strained: Croatia has refused to extradite two indicted war criminals or to provide key documents regarding the treatment of Croatia's Serbian minority between 1991 and 1995, when Tudjman's troops overran Krajina.
In itself, the prosecutor's statement does not constitute a formal indictment of Tudjman. But the language and details of Kehoe's remarks appear to provide the tribunal with the legal basis for such a formal charge.
The tribunal's judges recently ruled that the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia was an international conflict and not a civil war. That decision opened the way to a possible indictment of Belgrade leaders for their role in Bosnias bloodletting. And now Kehoe's comments suggest that the prosecutors might soon turn their attention to the Zagreb leadership as well.
There are at least two additional reasons to take such a possibility seriously. First, the court has previously indicted Croats at least in part to counter Serbian charges that it is an anti-Serbian political instrument of Western powers. Because the court recently indicted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his top aides for war crimes committed in Kosova, there may well be pressures mounting in The Hague to show a kind of "evenhandedness" by indicting the Croatian president and some of his top lieutenants. Tudjman has never made much of a secret that he does indeed believe that Bosnia should be partitioned between Serbia and Croatia.
And second, the court's indictment of Milosevic and the four other Belgrade leaders suggests that it may be becoming increasingly serious about indicting leading government figures and not just field commanders or prison guards. The indictment of the five top Serbs at the height of the Kosovo crisis took particular courage, since several Western governments would certainly have preferred to negotiate yet another peace deal with Milosevic rather than see him turned into an international pariah.
The political implications of the latest news from The Hague have not been lost in Croatia. Opposition Istrian political leader Damir Kajin was quoted in yesterday's "Jutarnji list" daily that Kehoe's statements could lead to the most serious domestic crisis in Croatia since the country gained independence in 1991.
Liberal leader Drazen Budisa said that the latest developments in The Hague do not bode well for Croatia. He added that his party has always opposed Tudjman's policies in Bosnia. The Social Democrats' Ivica Racan called the news from the court "disturbing."
But Tudjman's spokesman Tihomir Vinkovic charged the court with meddling in politics. Ivica Ropus, who is the spokesman for Tudjman's governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), said that he is "not surprised" by the news from The Hague, because the court has a "political agenda" against Croatia. (It is interesting to note that Tudjman's backers' arguments against the court are very similar to Belgrade's.)
Observers note that any future indictment by the Hague tribunal of Tudjman and other top Croatian leaders could have an immense impact on Croatia. That country depends on tourism and remittances from workers abroad for most of its hard-currency income. Croatia would therefore be much more vulnerable than Serbia if the international community were to apply sanctions so long as indicted war criminals remained in high offices.
And even if the possible pressures do not go as far as imposing economic sanctions, they could still have a devastating effect by placing on hold Zagreb's hopes for integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
Were Croats to wake up one morning to find that their president and several of his top aides indicted for war crimes, there would certainly be intense pressure for Tudjman and the others to resign. Whether any street protests would be more successful in forcing him from office than has been the case in Serbia is another matter. But past events suggest that the international community's ability to bring pressure to bear on the Tudjman leadership would almost certainly be far greater than has been the case with Milosevic.